Jewish Film Guide
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Incisive film looks at Jewish screenwriter’s role in the challenge that became the making of Citizen Kane


By Jimmy Gillman
May 16, 2012


RKO 281
HBO Films; 1990; 90 minutes; R, for adult themes and situations and strong language; Directed by Benjamin Ross; Starring: Liev Schreiber, John Malkovich, Roy Scheider, James Cromwell, Melanie Griffith, Liam Cunningham, Fiona Shaw and Brenda Blethyn; Screenwriter(s): John Logan

GRADE: B+

Legendary filmmaker Orson Welles battles media mogul William Randolph Hearst, a skeptical Jewish screenwriter, doubting co-workers, and the entrenched Hollywood system to create what would become his most enduring legacy,
Citizen Kane, in this thoroughly absorbing look at the events surrounding the making of the motion picture most critics still agree is the finest ever produced.

Based in part on the PBS documentary,
The Battle Over Citizen Kane, John Logan’s screenplay digs deep into the minds and motivations, the egos and eccentricities of the major players in what became a long-running, contentious affair involving everything from anti-Semitism to yellow journalism to the fundamental protections of free speech.

Once again HBO has come up with a winner—
RKO 281 is a highly intelligent, entertaining exploration of the situation surrounding the movie’s making, and while this re-telling is occasionally melodramatic, it completely captures the passions and politics in play and the important issues at stake.

By now the story of how billionaire Hearst did everything in his considerable power to prevent
Citizen Kane from being made and then destroyed once it was completed is relatively well known. But much of the back-story surrounding noted Jewish screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s role in the matter is unclear to many.

Mankiewicz’s story helps to illustrate that, despite the prominence of Jews in the movie making business, there were still large sinkholes of anti-Semitism. So deep were some of these enclaves of anti-Jewish sentiment, even RKO Chief George Schaefer, himself a Jew, was inhibited by them, causing his support for
Citizen Kane to run hot and cold.

Liev Schreiber is positively mesmerizing as Welles, his deep voice and tall stature enabling him to project Welles’ bombast as the “boy genius.” John Malkovich is also well cast as the gifted but alcoholic Mankiewicz, who forms a friendly, though at times combative, relationship with the young director; while James Cromwell as Hearst and Melanie Griffith as his longtime live-in lover, actress Marion Davies, make important contributions of their own.


Benjamin Ross’ direction focuses on the critical aspects of the story without sacrificing the peripheral action, giving
RKO 281 a full-featured flavor indistinguishable from a traditional theatrical release.

The production and art design beautifully evoke the plush glamour of old Hollywood to complete the re-creation, which stands as a testament to the dedication and artistic vision of everyone involved in bringing
Citizen Kane to life.

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